Christmas at Rockwood

Rockwood Hospital (my photo)

Rockwood Hospital (my photo)

A little over a month ago I visited the former Rockwood Hospital for the first time – that’s why none of these photos look very Christmasy; I remember it was Remembrance Day and something like sixteen degrees outside. But anyway, it was the first time I’d ever been there, and I found the experience really interesting. The building itself is massive and almost threatening, and has a spooky aura now that it’s been abandoned for fifteen years or so. Fluted stone steps lead down to the broken remnants of a fountain that once stood before the front door, which is boarded up and locked. Weeds grow tall within the fenced-off area, although the rest of the grounds are maintained, and otherwise the building looks strikingly fresh and new as the day it was built.

For some reason I had never been particularly interested in Rockwood, despite the pull of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. But now I wanted to know a bit more about it, and I remembered copies I had seen online of a little journal called the Rockwood Review. Although it does not contain much information about what went on within the hospital walls, I was immediately drawn to its yearly column, “Xmas at Rockwood.”

(my photo)

(my photo)

Rockwood Lunatic Asylum was built from 1859-70 and was originally intended to be a place to house the criminally insane, who had previously been kept in the penitentiary just down the road. However, as plans for the institution progressed during the 1850s, it became less of a place to punish criminals, and more of a hospital for the mentally ill with an emphasis on curing the patients. In 1877 ownership of the hospital was transferred from the federal to the provincial government, which ended its association with the penitentiary.

The Rockwood Review began publishing in 1894, and appears to have ended about 1902 (although that may be just what’s available online). It was called “a monthly journal devoted to literature, natural history, and local news,” and was run by presumably three members of the same family: Goldie, Margery, and Charles M. Clarke, who all worked at Rockwood. It contained some news items about the patients but more about staff comings and goings, plus bits of local news, stories, and, true to its description, notes on the area bird species. It’s unclear exactly who the intended audience of the journal was, although it may have been just for the public at large.

Reports of Christmas at Rockwood usually appeared in the January edition of the journal. They were pretty repetitive from year-to-year, but things changed over time. In 1894, the column began,

Xmas comes but once a year, and truly the staff of Rockwood Hospital should be grateful that such is the case, for their labors at that time are prodigious. If a single patient was unhappy on Xmas night, it was not the fault of any official of the Hospital, as everyone did all that was possible to make the day a red letter one.

Every year the staff of Rockwood decorated the main hall of the hospital with evergreen boughs, gave a lavish dinner, and organized a little show for the patients. A Christmas tree was also decorated, and presents for all the patients were sent in from their family members or from community donations. In 1894, they even had Santa come.

We may have our reservations about how psychiatric hospitals were run during these times, but it’s evident from these columns that the staff really did try to make the patients happy. The Christmas dinners had “turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens,” different varieties of vegetables, and “plum pudding, so rich in raisins, that the big fat fellows had to squeeze themselves into all sorts of shapes to find room . . .” The staff was also sensitive to the fact that many patients were lonely and sad to be away from their friends and families (I’m not sure what visiting rules were like); and also that some patients had no friends or families:

It may truly be said that there are no friendless ones, and even those patients who are nameless and with a history as blank and unfathomable as their future are not forgotten. […] [L]et us hope that under the careful direction of those who have the charge of the inmates, before another Xmas shall come many of those who are separated to-day will again be together at home.

It’s unclear whether the Christmas shows they put on were done with the help of patients as well as staff. In 1896 they put on a musical of Cinderella in the hospital Amusement Hall, where “scene after scene of great beauty appeared under the dazzling rays of electric light.” In 1901 they put on some kind of mildly politically incorrect skit called “How to Tame a Mother-in-Law.”

Over the years, the celebrations appear to have become more toned-down: in 1896, instead of a tree they had an Christmas “bell” made of evergreen boughs and flowers, and by 1901 both were eschewed in favour of distributing gifts in the wards. However, the large dinners and musical shows remained.

(Random fact: apparently the winter of 1897-98 was a harsh one, which was thought to have been because “the destruction of the forests is making the climate more severe”!)

(my photo)

(my photo)

What was treatment at Rockwood like during this time? A report in the Bulletin of the Ontario Hospitals for the Insane of October 1907 gives some clues. Patients directed to Rockwood Hospital were from the “Kingston District,” which comprised Durham, Northumberland, Hastings, Lennox, Addington, Prince Edward, Frontenac, and Renfrew counties. When patients were admitted to a psychiatric hospital, they had to be in possession of a “certificate of insanity” that guaranteed their need for treatment. By 1907 hospital officials were against this, saying that refusing voluntary admissions denied help to those most receptive to it.

Once patients were admitted, they were given a bath and put to bed. Later a medical examination was done and staff discussed the patient’s case. Sometimes cases were thought to be of “toxic origin,” perhaps caused by alcohol or drug use. Depending on the presumed cause of illness and the patient’s general condition, they were assigned some combination of Continuous Baths (to be explained), Weir-Mitchell’s bed rest cure, or time outdoors, with occasional supplements of drugs (i.e. sedatives) and treatments such as electro-therapy if needed. Surgeries could also be performed at Rockwood.

Continuous Baths were thought to be a cutting-edge treatment at the time, although they sound pretty awful. A patient would be placed in a hammock in a bathtub (designed to be difficult to climb out of) filled with a continuous supply of body-temperature water. There the patient remained for hours or days. This was thought to increase circulation and calm agitated patients; sometimes hot-air baths were used for the same purpose, followed by a massage. They also used something called a “hot wet pack” which they don’t fully explain, but come to think of it, I’m not sure I want to know what that is…

Force-feeding was common practice for patients who refused to eat. It was just as brutal as you’d expect: a tube delivering a food mixture, usually milk and egg, was put down into the esophagus, or for more difficult patients, directly into the stomach. Doctors did this because they felt nutrition was crucial to the recovery process. Drugs were only given as a last resort for agitated or violent patients, and physical restraints were strongly discouraged.

(my photo)

(my photo)

The report gives several case studies of patients, though it’s difficult to say how representative these are of the population of Rockwood. One thirty-three year-old woman had schizophrenia-like symptoms, such as delusions and visual and auditory hallucinations, and spent hours talking or singing to drown out the latter. After several months, she was allowed to go home on probation. A man who had “a prospering manufacturing enterprise” and who had been an alcoholic came in with an alarming set of symptoms, including insomnia, delirious nonsensical speech, and incontinence. This was attributed to neurasthenia and overwork, and he was sent home a month later. A very sad case was that of a man who had been extremely disturbed by his brother’s suicide attempt. He became severely depressed and sometimes frenzied, and once pointed to his head, saying,

There is something there that is a mystery to me, something blank there . . . It is a terrible thing that has happened; it will never be revealed unless I reveal it, and I can’t.

Most of these patients apparently improved and went home after a few months, but not all. The last case study, a violent woman who frequently tried to choke the nurses, said she remembered patients she had seen there during a previous stay six years earlier.

During the period covered by the Rockwood Review, the hospital had about six hundred patients and a hundred staff members – it was a busy place. As mentioned earlier, although the methods used by Rockwood Hospital during this period seem strange and perhaps cruel to us today, at the time they were thought to be the latest in psychiatric practice. And some of them, namely spending time outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight, and the ability for gainful recreation like playing in the Rockwood Band, probably did have a beneficial effect on some patients.

It would be great to read a book on Rockwood; a quick search on the Queen’s library database didn’t bring up any results. But I hope this post went some way in showing how patients were treated at Rockwood around the turn of the century and, of course, how they spent Christmas there! The hospital building is another one of Kingston’s beached whales, along with the penitentiary and St. Helen’s: buildings that no one knows what to do with and are hanging in limbo. You never even hear about Rockwood, though it’s been empty for quite a number of years now. (That is, unless it’s about someone who’s attempted to break in.)

This is I think the first holiday-theme post I’ve done on this blog. I usually steer clear of these, but I hope you liked it. Merry Christmas, and be thankful that treatment of the mentally ill has progressed so much in 100 years.

(my photo)

(my photo)


The following sources were found on the database Early Canadiana Online. A subscription is required to see all pages of documents in this database. Alternatively you can sign in with a university account, if your university is subscribed.

The Christmas columns of the Rockwood Review are found in the January issues, except for 1895 when it’s in the February issue. All issues can be found by clicking here!

Bulletin of the Ontario Hospitals for the Insane 1.3 (Oct. 1907) – Rockwood Hospital Number


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s